How to do a great branding ad —
Subaru scores with skier-focused print.

by John Furgurson on February 10, 2010

Winter Storm Slams Into Washington.
Travel Advisory For The Entire Mid Atlantic.
Historic Storm Hits Atlantic Coast.
Subaru of America loves headlines like that. Every time a big storm brings traffic to a standstill, the Subaru brand shines.

Subaru brand performs on snowy roads and in ads

The Subaru brand performs on snowy roads and in ads.

You seldom see an all-wheel-drive Outback wagon or a Forrester stuck in a snowbank. And you won’t see the company taking government bailout money.

While the big three automakers were buried in losses, Subaru was cruising right along.
Overall, U.S. sales were up 15% in 2009. In July, they posted a record sales month, up 34 percent from the previous year. In 2008, despite the lowest incentives in the industry, Subaru gained market share.

Not bad for a niche brand with a limited vehicle line up and a miniscule media presence. Subaru’s entire advertising budget is less than what some automakers spend on a single vehicle.

Which brings me back to those dreaded winter storm warnings and an ad I recently spotted in Ski Magazine:

“Snowstorm Advisory. More of a calling than a warning.” Subaru.
No photo of the car. Just a dramatic, black and white photo of a lonely road in a blizzard. It’s taken in the first-person perspective, as if I’m sitting in the front seat.
That ad doesn’t just speak to me. It sings.

Hats off to the creative team at Carmichael Lynch. And a round of applause for the client at Subaru who actually stood up against the industry convention and agreed to leave the car out altogether.

It takes guts to run a full page ad in a national magazine without showing the product. And I’m sure the dealers gripe about it, and say “it’s just a branding ad.”

But it works. It speaks volumes about the brand, and it touches a highly relevant emotional chord with anyone who has ever driven through a blizzard to be first on the chairlift.

Besides, with a limited budget there are plenty of practical reasons to leave out the product shot:

1. There’s no debate over which model to feature.
2. You don’t risk alienating anyone… Just let them imagine whatever Subaru model they like. For a younger, California skier it could be a WRX. For a Birkenstock-wearing telemark skier, it’s a Forrester.

By NOT showing the model, they actually sell every Subaru in the line up.
Damn right it’s a branding ad! You should be so lucky.

The Subaru ad reflects a genuine, empathetic understanding of the core audience.

Kevin Mayer, Subaru’s Director of Marketing, says his brand is as much about customers as it is about products.

Subaru caters to outdoorsy people of comfortable means who opt for function over fashion every time. It’s a well-targeted niche market of skiers, hikers and kayakers who need all-wheel-drive for navigating unpredictable roads. (Not surprisingly, most Subarus are sold in the Northwest and the Northeast, where there’s a lot of skiing, kayaking and hiking.)

But more importantly, “Subaru owners are experience seekers – they want to live bigger, more engaged lives,” Mayer, said. “To them, the car is the enabler of that bigger life. A conscious alternative to the mainstream.”

It’s obvious that the ski magazine ad came directly from that sort of crystal-clear consumer insight and brand strategy.

“We went back to the customer and started thinking again about their values and how our values are alike. We dialed in our strategies back to core,” Mayer said in a 2008 MediaPost.com article.

To me, the message is loud and clear… crummy, snowy roads can’t stop me from doing what I love.

In this ad, it’s benefits over features, all the way to the bank.

Karl Greenberg, editor of Mediapost said, “Subaru has the kind of brand equity and staunch loyalty you usually find in luxury marques, which means they can keep their message on product and brand, not on deals or features.”

Rather than running a headline that touts the features of a Subaru (ie the “symmetrical all-wheel-drive system) the ski magazine ad conveys the benefits of that system:
It sells the idea of all wheel drive.

While everyone else is stuck at home, Subaru owners are out enjoying life. Having fun. Missing nothing. It’s a message of empowerment wrapped in a warm, wintery blanket.
That’s what long term brand advertising is all about… connecting with specific groups of people in a relevant, emotional manner, time after time, after time. Until people start feeing like part of club.

Clearly the top executives at Subaru get it. They know their market. They’re clear on company values. And they’ve designed products that align perfectly with the brand, the message and the medium.

You couldn’t place that Subaru ad in The New Yorker or Parade Magazine, even during a snow storm. It would be out of context and off target. And when you see it in context of ski magazine, it doesn’t come across as hype. It’s as authentic as they come.

But no brand is perfect, and Subaru has had its share of flops. For instance, they ran full page ads featuring the Motor Trend Car Of The Year trophy.

Unfortunately, Subaru drivers don’t care about automotive awards. In fact, they buy Forresters almost because of the derogatory comments from industry insiders.

Subaru Forester brand for outdoor enthusiasts

The usual, stock photo of A 1998 Forrester

Subaru once tried to build a sports car. The SVX was a classic branding faux paus… In the mind of the consumer, Subaru means only one thing: Functionality. No amount of advertising could change that. So it wasn’t a sports car, and it didn’t look like a Subaru. What the hell was it?

It didn’t’ stand a chance.

Subaru CEO Ikuo Mori recently admitted that the “up market migration” with the B9 Tribeca hasn’t worked.

Too big and too flashy for that family of cars. Jim Treece from Automotive news said, “There is nothing especially wrong with the B9 Tribeca, except that it has utterly nothing to do with Subaru’s brand.”

Despite its occasional slip-ups, Subaru enjoys tremendously high brand loyalty. Rally enthusiasts swear by them and people sell their neighbors on Subaru based on their own brand stories.

And the common theme: The cars are relentlessly practical. Especially in a snow storm.

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